Overcome. The word that I got permanently inked on my body. How I felt at many times throughout my recovery thanks to the outpouring of love and support from friends and family. How I felt when I lined up at the start line of a bike race for the first time since my injury. How I felt when I made it up the first ascent. Down the first descent. How I felt when I saw the finish line. Overcome.
Overcome was my mantra throughout my recovery, and it encompassed all things physical, emotional, and, not least of all, mental. I was determined to recover as quickly and fully as possible. To not only come back to 100% health, but to actually come back stronger. Stronger mentally. Stronger physically.
So when I was back on the bike a little over a month after what was a devastating injury, I focused on building upon the mental tenacity that has made me into the endurance athlete that I am. I tried my best to navigate the mental hurdles – of which there were many.
Getting back on the bike for the first time. Trusting that I was capable of even keeping the bike on both wheels. Using my brakes for the first time. Trusting my body and my bike to stand up and climb for the first time. Getting used to what felt like was going to be my new norm – slower, less power, less stamina. Knowing that severe accidents are very much within the realm of possible outcomes. Trying my best to not be angry or frustrated at how much I had lost, and instead celebrate how much I had already regained. But it was hard. There were days I didn’t enjoy cycling. Days that I wondered if it was worth it. Days where I so badly wished I could just flip a switch and go back to where I was before the injury.
But I stuck with it and tried to stack together good ride after good ride. Some felt better than others. Most didn’t. But I was back on the bike. And I was building each ride.
I was also building in the gym, where I was putting in two-hour sessions of strength training mixed with physical therapy. Five days a week. 5am every single morning. No damn excuses.
By week six of my recovery, I had built up to 50 miles on the bike. It was one of the least fun rides of my life. I questioned a lot of things in the wake of that ride.
By week seven, I had built up to 85 miles. Not only had I knocked out 85 miles, I actually had done so at a pace that was within 10% of what I was capable of pre-injury. This also presented lots of questions…
Chief among them – am I back? Because if I’m back, I can race again, right? And if I can race again, then I should probably fix up my wrecked bike, right? And if I get my wrecked bike fixed in time, and if I really can race again, there’s this race that I was planning on doing. I can do it, right? Hardest ride in the South. 104 miles. 11,385 feet of climbing. Physically, can I do it?
Same mountains I crashed in. Can I handle that? And there’s the hard one. The question that raises a million other questions. Can I really trust myself to descend? Can I trust my bike? What happens when I squeeze the brakes for the first time? Second time? Third? Every time? How will I feel when I ride past the place I crashed? Can I handle seeing the road sign for the hospital that I spent time at, with the mountains that I’m climbing in the background? Can I do it?
I delayed registering for as long as possible…literally until the last day that online registration was an option. I couldn’t answer those questions. Primarily the mental ones. However, I also was having a tough week physically leading up to the race. My legs felt dead from all the work to re-build and my two rides on my newly fixed up bike felt terrible. I struggled my way through 30 and 40 mile rides on mostly flat terrain. And I was also having what I’ll call compensation issues – knees hurting due to unfamiliar usage or movement to compensate for the injury.
This all weighed on me as I contemplated registering. I wish I could say that clarity came to me and that my mind settled down. That I had one ah-hah moment that made me see what I needed to see to know that I could sign up for and complete the race. But I didn’t. Ultimately, I just kind of said “F it”.
It was almost an indignant “F it”. F this injury that has defined me for the last couple months. F the impact that it’s had on my mental state – my ability to enjoy riding a bike. F being scared. F being limited. F the doctor that told me I’d never ride again. F the sadness that I would get seeing social media posts from those competing in 6 Gap. F it all.
And that’s how I ended up registered for the 6 Gap Century.
If that process sounds like madness, it’ll sound even madder when you hear a little more about the race. 6 Gap is appropriately named for six mountain passes – also known as gaps – in the Appalachian Mountains that cyclists must successfully navigate. The gaps range in length and steepness, with 2 miles being the shortest gap and with a vicious, steep 7-mile climb being the longest. At 104 miles, and with practically no flat land at any point along the course, 6 Gap isn’t just a casual ride around the block. Cyclists will have to climb for nearly an hour each time they hit one of the 7-mile gaps (there are two of them), and will have to navigate screaming descents where speeds can hit 60 mph+. Oh…and you’re going to be on your bike for anywhere between 6 and 7.5 hours.
Simply put…it’s no joke.
6 Gap is hard enough as is. It’s infinitely harder two months removed from a major injury, a major surgery, and major mental roadblocks.
I was very aware of these factors when I toed the start line. I was most aware of my own fear. I was terrified of the descents. I knew that I could will my way through the race. That I could squeeze out every last bit of energy to make sure that, physically, I was able. I was confident in that. I wasn’t confident that I would actually make it through the race though. I was just so fearful that I would wreck again.
Many times once a race starts the fears or doubts dissipate. They’re replaced by any number of things – whether it’s intense focus, eagerness, adrenaline, or even intense suffering. Unfortunately, my fears never dissipated. It was an eerie feeling. About the only way that I can describe it is the feeling that you get when you get on a roller coaster. You slowly inch your way up. Anticipation building. Fear building. You can see the top of the climb, but you can’t see where the track goes. All you know is that you’re most certainly going over the edge. That’s how I felt all day. This acute awareness that I was slowly, surely inching closer and closer to going over the edge. That every pedal stroke brought me nearer and nearer to catastrophe.
Yet, I was enjoying myself. The weather was brilliant. The feeling of being in a race again was joyous. It was the realization of the hard work and a light at the end of the dark days of rehab. The pride of knowing that my experience today was likely going to be much different, and likely much more difficult than most cyclists was a constant buoy. It was all great…minus the whole being scared for my life bit.
The first 10 miles passed with nothing of real significance happening. I was very cognizant of my pacing and really wanted to not expend too much energy too early. So my girlfriend’s final words to me before I headed off to the start line kept ringing in my head “It’s your race”.
Shortly before mile 20 we hit our first gap of the day. And I learned that 6 Gap isn’t much for wining and dining. We got right down to business. Neel’s Gap – a nearly seven-mile slog. I didn’t know how long Neel’s Gap was, or even that I was on Neel’s Gap, but I did the one thing that I always do when I climb…settle in. Get into a rhythm. High cadence. Soft and quick on the pedals. Easier said than done when you’re climbing a mountain.
I was shocked to find that I was ticking off cyclists by the dozens on Neel’s Gap. It was rare that I went more than 15 seconds without cruising by a fellow competitor. Remember: it’s your race, Jason. I kept reminding myself of that. It was very helpful for a couple reasons. First, I didn’t really care that I was passing other cyclists. In some races, I’d be very competitive and I’d make it a point to pick up places. Not this race. Second, I felt myself getting concerned by the fact that I was passing so many cyclists. The first thought was “Maybe I’m working too hard”. But I really felt strong and I felt like I was in a great rhythm so I just rolled with it. Who cares if I’m passing or being passed? I’m riding my race.
With a few miles to go in the climb a fellow cyclist that I had met at the Shelby County Grand Prix pulled up behind me. His voice boomed. “Jason! You’re hanging strong!”. He and I had connected on Facebook following the SCGP and it was nice to see someone out there that knew a little more about what I was facing. We chatted for maybe a mile, but he was climbing really well and I knew that as much as I enjoyed the company, that I would not be enjoying the back half of the race if I tried to keep up with him.
After 50 minutes of climbing, Neel’s Gap was in the books…kind of. There’s still that whole descent thing. I was dreading it. I couldn’t shake the feeling of impending doom. I tried. I called on all the mental training that I’ve done over the years. But I couldn’t shake it. As I started off on the descent, the only thing that kept me in the race was knowing that I have no other option. Knowing that the entire day was about redefining what it is that I can do. Taking back control. I had to do this.
It didn’t take long for the bike to pick up speed. After maybe a quarter of a mile I was traveling over 35 miles per hour. And I knew that I was only going to pick up more and more speed. I wanted to slow down. But I didn’t trust my brakes. I’m stuck. I finally worked up the nerve to squeeze my rear brake – the very same brake that locked up two short months ago. It was less about working up the nerve to grab the brake though, and more about losing the nerve to go careening down a mountain at 50 mph.
Ok. Brake applied. Bike slowed a little. I’m still on it. Good deal.
And this is where I thought I would clear the hurdle. I thought it would be like a football player that just needs to get hit one time before they feel like they’re in the game. Or a basketball player that makes a layup and suddenly they can’t miss from anywhere on the court. That’s not what happened though.
Towards the bottom of the descent I found myself almost pleading with the universe. “I really don’t want to do this”. I said that as I cleared a sweeping corner and saw nothing but more downhill in front of me. Just get through it, Jason. Overcome.
I reached the bottom of the descent and my confidence was at an all time low. All the questions and fears that were stirring before the race had come to life. But they’re even worse than I thought.
The doubts regarding my fitness may have been a bit exaggerated though. I crushed Neel’s Gap and I felt great [physically] by the time I hit the bottom. I didn’t know it at the time, but I averaged a wattage of 251 for Neel’s Gap. Not world class by any means, but that’s pretty damn close to the wattage that I would have pushed pre-injury.
Next up was 3-4 miles of gradual downhill with some mixed rollers before we reached Jack’s Gap. I’ve ridden Jack’s Gap more than a handful of times. Jack’s Gap actually connects to Brasstown Bald – the mountain that sent me to the hospital. Talk about eerie…riding practically right by the scene of the crime. Jack’s Gap on its own isn’t a bad climb at all. 4.2 miles with a very manageable gradient. I again rode past and away from many cyclists on this climb, en route to a solid 211 wattage.
Time to descend again. Like many climbs, the last part is the steepest. Which means that the start to the descent is the steepest. Which means uber speed. Within seconds I was ripping down the mountain at 40 miles per hour. There’s a sweeping right hand turn coming. I’m scared to touch my brakes. I’m scared to make this turn. I apply the rear brake, and it doesn’t seem to do too much. This part is in my head I think. I hear the same sound as I hear when my brakes locked up, and I feel the bike wiggle just a little. Here it comes. It’s happening again.
I let go of the brake and I hit the turn way faster than I’m comfortable with at this point. Leaning into the turn I feel the speed and the struggle to stay on my line and make it around the turn safely. My heart rate spikes. Adrenaline pumping. I feel that deep sense of fear that you’d get if you thought you were home alone and something startled you. Fear in its purest form.
I make it around the turn and use a long, straight portion of the descent to gradually bring my bike to a speed that I’m more comfortable with. Many of the cyclists that I had passed on the way up come ripping by me at 50+ mph. It’s your race, Jason.
Ok, two gaps down. Body feeling good. Mind? Eh. It’s hard to describe having this odd blend of confidence and a complete and utter lack of confidence at the same time. By the time I cleared Jack’s Gap, I knew that I was physically capable of completing this race. I’m smoking these climbs. I’ve got to be in the top 30% of cyclists competing. I’m performing well. But I’m also so incredibly unsure of myself on these descents. I’m convinced that I’m going to wreck again. That’s a hard spot to be in mentally.
As I’m trying to go through the mental manipulations, I barely even notice that we’ve now reached Unicoi Gap. I’m delighted to be climbing again. I love this. I get into my rhythm for the next 2.8 miles and crank out an average of 238 watts. After 45 miles, I’m not fading. In fact, I rode this climb better than the one previous (Jack’s Gap). I’m almost sad when Unicoi Gap comes to an end.
I’m not sad to see the descent. Once again, I’m horrified. But I hang on and make it through it.
At mile 55 we’ve made it to the proving grounds. Hogpen Gap. Equally revered and feared by many a cyclist. Seven miles of climbing with gradients that exceed 15% in some sections. That’s steep for those of you that don’t speak gradient. Like real steep.
After about a mile, I’m starting to feel the effort. I’m not spinning the pedals with quite the same ease. I’m not in my rhythm. Wait…that’s it. I’m not in my rhythm. I’m not fading, I’m just not in my rhythm. So I whip up my cadence and I settle in. I come out of the saddle at the steep parts, but I’m pleasantly surprised that they don’t feel all that steep. They look steep, but I feel powerful. I attribute it to all the strength training that I’ve done every damn day, and I give myself a pat on the back.
Further boosting my confidence is the fact that I’m riding the hardest freakin’ climb on the day better than anyone else around me. Many times when I make a pass the passee looks over with this look of bewilderment. Almost like “What the hell are you doing, dude?”. I get a lot of satisfaction out of this, even more so knowing what I’ve gone through. I let it bolster my confidence but not alter my approach. I stick to my rhythm and keep on grinding through the 45-minute long climb.
After a little over seven miles of climbing and 2,000 feet of elevation gain, I’ve made it to the top of Hogpen. It’s mile 62 of the race and I’m still feeling remarkably well. To quantify that statement, I rode Hogpen at an average wattage of 214. Again, I’m not fading.
Unfortunately, every mountain climb is accompanied by a mountain descent. I get off my bike before this descent at a rest stop. I take a few minutes to fill up my bottles, use the restroom, and get some food down, but realistically I’m doing my best to delay the inevitable. I’ve got to descend. F it. Let’s go.
I get back on the bike and I gear up for the screaming descent. I’m battling major mental demons. With about 300 feet before the descent begins I see the worst possible sign that I could imagine. It’s the road sign that shows a truck bombing down a descent with the words “Caution steep gradient”. It’s incredibly unsettling.
I can’t bring myself to actually descend. So for the first mile or so I just hug my brakes, which I know is the worst thing to do. Overheated brakes are most likely why I crashed in the first place. But I can’t bring myself to let go of the brakes. I realize that I can’t descend like this.
I bring the bike to a stop as I stare at a steep, sharp right-hand bend. I rationalize the stop by saying that I need to let my brakes cool down – which is somewhat legitimate because my rims are hot to the touch. But realistically, I stop to try to get my mind under control. Bikes go ripping by me one after another. I’m embarrassed. And envious. Why can’t I just descend like that? I start stretching almost to signify to other riders that I’ve stopped due to a cramp. I’m ashamed.
I don’t know how long I sat there. 3 minutes. 5 minutes. And despite a lot of searching, I never got what I wanted out of that pit stop. I wanted the confidence to get off this damn mountain. I didn’t get it. In fact, I may have been in an even worse mental space after the stop than before it.
Making matters worse is the fact that I know this descent. In fact, it was the last descent that I navigated successfully on my fateful ride a couple months ago. I know that there are two steep curves. I know that the road often has condensation on it. I know that keeping the bike under 50 miles per hour is difficult. I know what can happen if I crash.
Finally I get back on the bike. Because I have to do this. Overcome.
I navigate the first sweeping right-hander with little difficulty. I do a good job at keeping the bike at a manageable speed, but of course, the risk in this is that the braking that I’m doing will again cause the brakes to overheat. What other choice do I have? After about five heart pumping minutes, it’s over.
A cyclist rides by me at the bottom portion of the descent. He says “The worst of it is behind us”. I know that he’s referring to the brutal climb of Hogpen Gap, but I eagerly agree with him. Because that descent…that was the worst of it.
I’m still shocked by how well I’m performing. It’s mile 65 or so by the time we reach the bottom of Hogpen and my legs actually feel like they’ve got some life left in them. I don’t get over-exuberant though because I know that in 6-7 short miles we’ll be climbing once again.
We’re pointed at Wolf Pen Gap now – the fifth of the six gaps. Wolf Pen is another climb that I had done a couple times in training rides this summer. I remember the last time that I took on Wolf Pen. It was after two of the hardest climbs that you’ll find in the Blue Ridge Mountains – Brasstown Bald and Hogpen in the opposite direction as we climbed it in the race. I had climbed really well on that day and so I decided I was going to unleash on Wolf Pen to finish out my training ride.
The tricky thing about Wolf Pen is that there’s about a 2 mile false flat leading up to the climb, where you’re going ever so slightly uphill even though it appears to be flat. When you get to the 3.2 mile climb, you’re treated to relatively moderate gradients at the bottom. The gradients get progressively harsher though. If you go too hard on the “easy” section of the climb, you’re going to get your lunch handed to you the last third of the climb. I got my lunch handed to me on the last third of the climb during my training ride.
So when I hit Wolf Pen I remind myself to get into a rhythm that’s sustainable from bottom to top. At the same time, I’m climbing really, really well. I’m feeling the typical pains associated with climbing – burning quads, gassed calves, lungs burning – and I’m just kind of mocking them. This isn’t pain. I know pain.
I remember lying in the hospital bed post-op and trying to find a way to manage the pain. I was most successful when I visualized. I visualized a large glass jar sitting directly underneath my leg. And I imagined the pain exiting my body and entering the jar. Each time the leg would spasm or pulse and the pain became even more intense, the jar would fill up a little more quickly. I often had rehab sessions that were multi-jar sessions. Every single day, for weeks, I filled up jars. I bottled the jars and I vowed that they would become fuel for me. I was re-purposing my pain.
And I needed that fuel for Wolf Pen. We were 70 miles into the race. Over 20 miles of it were pure climbing. I needed every bit of fuel I could get.
After 24 minutes of climbing, Wolf Pen was done and dusted. 3.2 miles at an average wattage of 219. Not fading.
I again hopped off the bike to refill my bottles. Climbing heats your body temperature up substantially and I was going through fluids like crazy. Whether by consuming them or dumping them all over my head and legs. At the rest stop I overheard some cyclists talking about the last gap of the day – Woody’s Gap. I hung around for a moment thinking “Ok, cool…but tell me about this descent down Wolf Pen”.
I was somewhat confident that neither descent – Wolf Pen or Woody’s – was going to be too severe. Maybe that’s how I coped with my fear at that time. Either way, I wasn’t quite as full of dread as I was at the top of Hogpen. I knew that nothing could be worse than the Hogpen descent.
So off I went.
It didn’t take long for that sense of doom to re-emerge. And it lasted a while. Wolf Pen was a surprisingly long descent. Thankfully, the gradients were never too harsh, so I never really felt out of control or like I couldn’t bring the bike to a stop if I needed to. But I was still very, very fearful. Adding to that fear were crosses with pictures along the side of the road. I passed at least two of them on this descent. Each picture showing a man holding a bicycle. As if I wasn’t already acutely aware of my mortality.
I make it through the Wolf Pen Gap descent with no incident. One more gap to go. The legs are definitely feeling a little more worn and I’m feeling the effects of over 5 ½ hours of effort. Passing the 80-mile marker, I’m a little discouraged knowing that I’ve still got 24 miles remaining. But the distance really felt insignificant compared to what I had been through mentally. If I could have, I would have ridden 50 more miles if it meant no more descents.
But we’ve got one more climb. Thus, we’ve got one more descent. Woody’s Gap is the least significant climb of the day. Coming in at just under 2 miles and with a very friendly gradient, on paper Woody’s Gap should be easy by comparison. Granted, every climb feels much, much harder at mile 85 and after 10,000 feet of climbing.
As I approach Woody’s Gap a cyclist that I’ve been jockeying back and forth with pulls up beside me and we chat a little about the approaching climb. I hear him say 3 miles. So I prepare myself mentally for roughly 20 minutes of climbing. I’m glad I did too.
I settled into my rhythm. Once again my rhythm has me going up the gap more rapidly than surrounding cyclists. And again, this feels good. Especially this late in a race. After about 8 minutes I see what looks to be the top of the climb. Can’t be. It has to be a small downhill section before the remainder of the climb.
Nope. That was it. Kind of anticlimactic. I’ve climbed all six gaps. I average 208 watts on Woody’s Gap. Not far off the 211 watts that I rode Jack’s Gap at nearly 4 full hours earlier. Not fading.
For the next three miles or so we descend from about 3500 feet to about 1500 feet. The descent isn’t terrible but I’m battling those same mental demons. If I can just get through this descent I’m home free. But how awful would it be to have something happen on the last descent of the day? That’s exactly what happened two months ago…
Thankfully nothing does happen. And now the only thing standing between the finish line and me is 10 miles of rolling hills.
At certain points throughout the race I felt waves of emotions coming over me. I thought of how sweet this moment would be. I thought of how hard I fought to get back on the bike. To get to this race. I thought of how impossible normal tasks – like putting on socks – felt just four or five weeks ago. I thought about how scared I was and how I was staring down my fears. I thought about a lot. I felt a lot.
Whenever I reached emotional points, I tried my best to acknowledge the emotions but to quickly re-focus. Wherever I was in the race, I kept telling myself that I’ve got enough to worry about. Enough distance. Enough climbing. Enough descending.
But in these last 10 miles, when I knew – like actually knew – that the finish line was assured, I didn’t want to hold back the emotions any more. I found myself fighting off tears as I continued to push towards the finish line.
The tears were a blend of so many things that I was feeling in that moment and so many things that had built up over the two months since my injury. I can’t even try to explain the emotions. Once again, the word overcome is very appropriate.
I was almost disappointed to see the finish line come into sight. This was truly a once in a lifetime experience, and at this point, I was enjoying it. I wasn’t disappointed to see my girlfriend cheering me on though. I wish I could say that I crossed the finish line and ran over and gave her a kiss. But I didn’t. I stopped my bike and I just cried.
I had done it. I had redefined. I had redeemed. I had overcome.
I'm a proud Big Brother, and despite my Little wishing that I wouldn't run so much, a proud endurance athlete. I started my endurance career by signing up for a marathon when I couldn't even complete a 10k, and I started my Big Brother career by volunteering when I wasn't sure I even could offer a youth much. Both processes have showed me that stepping outside of your comfort zone serves as the best method of improving yourself.